October 23, 2020

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Morneau can't escape conflict quagmire

Editorial

It goes without saying that members of the federal Liberal Party and the government of Justin Trudeau have been hoping and praying for something to temper the extreme heat the prime minister is facing for his involvement in the WE Charity scandal.

They would probably have preferred that "something" not to be Minister of Finance Bill Morneau.

As it happens, however, the quickly escalating turmoil surrounding Mr. Morneau’s messy involvement in the WE Charity situation has fully diverted — surely, only temporarily — the attention of opposition parties and the media away from Mr. Trudeau.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau was dragged into the controversy he had not recused himself from discussions regarding the contract with WE Charity, despite having a daughter who is employed by the organization. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau was dragged into the controversy he had not recused himself from discussions regarding the contract with WE Charity, despite having a daughter who is employed by the organization. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

The finance minister was dragged into the controversy — which initially focused on the awarding and subsequent quick cancellation of an untendered contract for the high-profile charity founded by siblings Craig and Marc Kielberger to administer a youth-volunteer program, and the fact several of Mr. Trudeau’s family members had been paid by WE for speaking engagements — after it was revealed that Mr. Morneau, like the prime minister, had not recused himself from discussions regarding the contract, despite having a daughter who is employed by WE Charity.

That was bad enough, but as the scandal deepened and Mr. Morneau was called to testify this week before a parliamentary committee, he "suddenly" remembered and repaid $41,000 in travel expenses related to WE-sponsored trips his family took to Kenya and Ecuador in 2017.

"I expected and always had intended to pay the full cost of these trips," Mr. Morneau contended Wednesday. "Not doing so, even unknowingly, it’s not appropriate. I want to apologize for this error on my part."

The average Canadian might be inclined to think someone whose level of financial advantage is such that he can dismiss $41,000 as a forgettable accounting error is rather woefully out of touch with the day-to-day budgeting realities of the average Canadian, and that perhaps such a person might not be a suitable choice to oversee the nation’s finances. But that would miss the larger point.

The conduct of Mr. Morneau and Mr. Trudeau in connection to the WE Charity file signals a level of political arrogance, ethical unmooring and personal entitlement that brings their fitness for office squarely into question. It might not suggest outright corruption in terms of criminal intent and the deliberate pursuit of personal gain through public-office advantage, but it surely reveals the top operators in this federal government as having the impression they can do whatever they want while in power because, as members of Canada’s self-styled natural governing party, they have the right because they’re always right.

The smugness is appalling.

Both Finance Minster Bill Morneau (left) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) have shown a level of ethical unmooring and personal entitlement that brings their fitness for office into question. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Both Finance Minster Bill Morneau (left) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) have shown a level of ethical unmooring and personal entitlement that brings their fitness for office into question. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Add to that the manner in which the government this week seemingly sought to provide cover for messrs. Trudeau and Morneau by having junior cabinet minister Bardish Chagger (diversity and inclusion and youth) take the fall for the WE debacle, and what began as a hamhandedly rushed effort to launch a youth-employment program during the pandemic has devolved into a rather tawdry tale of privilege and leverage that threatens to upend the Liberals’ minority government.

Mr. Morneau, at this point, is in too deep. He should resign. That’s the most prudent and honourable exit strategy, because it’s highly unlikely Mr. Trudeau will fire him.

"I think there’s a reason," Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said this week. "I think it is because if Justin Trudeau imposes any type of ethical standard on Bill Morneau, then others would ask that he impose it on himself."

The heat shows no prospect of dissipating.

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